COVID-19 pandemic the factor in decision by defending league champs, five other clubs; 'But we will back next fall,' promises team's owner
A year after winning the Kelly Cup ECHL championship, in their first year of existence, the Newfoundland Growlers will sit out the 2020-21 hockey season.
The league announced Wednesday that each of the six teams in the North Division — the Growlers, Adirondack Thunder, Brampton Beast, Maine Mariners, Reading Royals and Worcester Railers — will voluntarily suspend play for the 2020-21 ECHL season under the League’s COVID-19 policy.
All teams, including the Growlers, are set to return for the 2021-22 ECHL season.
ECHL-contracted players on the six teams are now considered free agents.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is running rampant,” Growlers owner Dean MacDonald said at a news conference at the Growlers’ office Wednesday evening.
On Tuesday, it was reported the number of deaths in the U.S. that day (1,707) was the highest daily death toll in six months.
“It’s highly concerning,” MacDonald said. “The league does not want to put our players, staff, and our fans at risk.
“It’s a prudent decision, albeit incredibly disappointing. But we will be back next fall. It’s not that far away. That’s where our focus is now.”
“It’s a prudent decision, albeit incredibly disappointing. But we will be back next fall. It’s not that far away. That’s where our focus is now.” — Dean MacDonald
MacDonald said Growlers staff considered a number of options before pulling the plug on the upcoming season. One of those options was moving the franchise to a U.S. city that has an available arena.
One such arena could be in Iowa where MacDonald owns a franchise that will start play next season.
Or perhaps Trois-Rivieres, Que., where MacDonald owns another expansion franchise that will hit the ice in 2021-22.
“We looked at a whole bunch of options for this season, or even a portion of this season until the pandemic becomes less virile,” he said. “We looked at a bunch of locations in the U.S., and bunch of locations in Canada. But the locations in the U.S. were problematic because the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Marlies (of the AHL) couldn’t call their players back up in any kind of quick or meaningful fashion.
“Then you have the double problem that if you play elsewhere, you don’t have a fan base. Our league relies on fans and sponsors as the two revenue streams.
“We were prepared to take a hit. But it’s (COVID-19) out of control in most hockey markets (in the U.S.). It became almost a non-starter because you’re putting players at risk. And then there will be cancelled games because players will be catching it. It’s inevitable, no matter how much testing you do.
“We’ve seen it in other professional sports, and our league cannot sustain stop and start, stop and start. There’s no way you could bubble (like the NHL and NBA playoffs) that works for us.
“So it’s better to make a decision and move on than keep our players waiting, our fans waiting.”
MacDonald said Growlers’ staff should not be affected. They’ve all be working since the start of COVID-19.
“And if you live in Canada, have businesses in Canada, you’ve been reinforced by programs the federal government has enacted. It’s my understanding those programs will be renewed any day now.
“And, of course, with two other franchises starting up (in Iowa and Trois Rivieres), our staff is quite active. They’re working with people on the ground there. They’re busy.”